Inside the Collection

Meet the curator- Michael Lea

Portrait of curator Michael Lea
Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski © Powerhouse Museum all rights reserved

Michael Lea

What is your speciality area?
Music and musical instruments. It’s a very diverse area so covers a lot of ground from historical to contemporary aspects through to musical traditions from a variety of cultures. We also look at music from a number of different angles that includes the science and design behind instruments as well as historical developments and also the way music has been used culturally in all its various forms. Music is found in many different contexts and you’ll see instruments from the collection on display in a wide variety of exhibitions at the museum.

Although I’ve got a background in music I also have a strong history and social sciences training so I’ve got a particular interest in Australian instrument makers, especially those that are now long forgotten. When possible I try to revive interest in them through research and articles and by putting their works on display or helping organise a performance where one might be played. Organising some of the performances at the museum is another part of the job.

How long have you been working at the Museum?
Is that a polite question to ask? I’ve been the curator in this area since 1998 but began working with the music collection in 1985.

What is your favourite object in the collection?
The whole collection is fascinating so that’s a tough one to answer. That being said though, one of my faves is the Maccaferri plastic guitar that you can see below. Another is this small banjo mandolin I’m holding in the photo which was made in Australia in the late 1940s or 1950s. This one was donated to the museum by Melbourne instrument maker Roger Buckmaster. Pacific was the name of an instrument company that was established by Hec McLennan in Melbourne and made guitars as well as these smaller instruments. They started in the 1940s around about the same time as Maton Guitars did, but possibly initially used McLennan’s name in the early stages rather than Pacific.

One of the reasons I like them is that rather than being high end collectables or professional instruments they were a basic day-to-day instrument that anyone might play and which today aren’t very widely known. They were at the lower end of the market using fairly cheap materials, which might account for the condition of some of them today – they were probably well used as a knock-around instrument rather than kept in a pristine state which might happen to more up market models. They often used paint stencils for their name and other things such as fret markers, rather than having actual inlay in the fingerboard. The guitars they made also used stencils on the body sometimes with figures of cowboys or even palm trees to add an exotic touch. The banjo mandolin is an intriguing thing in itself – one of a range of instruments that seem to have been cross bred with something else (in this case the banjo and the mandolin). To take the idea further…we’ve also got a walking stick violin in the collection! We don’t have much information about Hec McLennan and Pacific so I’d love to hear more if anyone knows.

What piece of research or exhibition are you most proud of in your career at the Museum?
In terms of research probably the work I’ve done on nineteenth century makers such as John Devereux (bowed strings) or Jordan Wainwright (flutes), both of who were amongst some of the earliest professional makers working in the European tradition in Australia and which not much was known about. Over the years we’ve also commissioned instruments from present day makers to document their work and have also commissioned some new music for exhibitions and programs from composers, both of which have been great ways for the museum to make a link with the creative process. For exhibitions one of the highlights with hindsight was working with the team on Ngaramang Bayumi: an exhibition about Australian Indigenous music and dance. It broke some new ground for the museum and involved lots of people working with us from the arts and communities around Australia. Working with Coxie and Brakie on the rock and roll exhibition, Real Wild Child, was a hoot too!

4 responses to “Meet the curator- Michael Lea

  • Dear Mr. Lea,

    My name is Angela Heck. I am a DMA student of Dr. Valerie Watts at the University of Oklahoma, USA. I am writing in hopes that you will be willing to participate in a research study that I am conducting for my DMA document, ‘The Mechanical Development of the Piccolo.’ Your observations of the instrument would contribute to this exploration. The results will be objectively presented in my DMA document.

    If you consent to this study, I would like to email you a series of questions about the development of the piccolo. If you would prefer a telephone interview, we can arrange a convenient time for you. The interview will be recorded and I will later transcribe the interview. Recordings will only be used by me and will be retained by me for future reference.

    If you are interested in participating, I will mail you an Informed Consent Form and a return envelope. A sample of this form is attached. Please read and sign the form and mail it back to me. Once I receive your signed Informed Consent Form, I will then email you a list of interview questions.

    I hope you will agree to be part of this project. Teachers, students, and performers will benefit from the knowledge it will produce. I would be happy to address any questions you might have before you agree to participate. Please respond by email or phone (937) 307-3498.

    Thank you for your consideration.

    Angela Heck

  • Hi Michael,
    Like yourself I have a Manby training violin in excellent condition.
    The bow has a Manby stamp on it but to my eye it appears that there is another name underneath Manby, I cannot make it out does yours have the same feature?
    I also have a col joye guitar in an archtop single cutaway accoustic electric.
    If you would like photos I can send some to you.

  • Karl Neuenfeldt here. I have done music research with Torres Strait Islanders and also a book on didjeridu. I have been doing research on music in northwestern WA and have come across a harmonium that was gifted to the Kalumburu mission/community for their help in rescuing downed German pilots in 1932, Bertram and Klausmann. The harmonium was made in Stuttgart Germany by Schiedermayer and Soehne. Its history is interesting as it was later damaged by the Japanese air raid on the mission in WW2, 1943. It still has the bullet holes in it and is in the Benedictine Museum in New Norcia, WA. Not sure if it is playable anymore.

    I wonder if you have come across harmoniums elsewhere in Oz and how they were used… or researchers who have done research on them. ta, Karl 0417194050

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